Canada – Competition for preschool viewers heats up with entry of new net

Playhouse Disney treads on Treehouse turf
October 1, 2008

Playhouse Disney treads on Treehouse turf

Lay of the land: Operational since November, the new 24/7 commercial-free net targets the two to seven demo and features a mix of original Disney programming and Canadian-produced fare. With less than a year under its belt, Playhouse Disney Canada has so far achieved carriage in more than a million households, primarily through a deal with satellite service Bell ExpressVu. But with the Disney name behind the net, it’s fair to say it has become a contender for Treehouse’s once undisputed marketshare.

The goal: Kevin Wright, SVP of programming at PDC owner Astral Television Networks, wants to widen the channel’s reach and integrate Disney fare with new Canadian content in order to gain a foothold in the

Canadian preschool landscape.

The strategy: The plan is to maintain a consistent mix of programming and

establish a viewing pattern that children and parents can grow accustomed to. ‘Essentially every day of the week, the same show is on at the same time,’ says Wright. ‘It helps to create a routine, and our viewers respond to that.’

Of course, the strategy has to allow for the introduction of new series, which Wright says he likes to sandwich between established shows. As for blocks and scheduling, like Treehouse, Playhouse Disney is hamstrung by having a single feed to cover the vast expanse that is Canada. However, Wright believes that creative solutions, like repeating series in multiple time slots, can help mitigate the issue. For example, Disney’s Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is slotted at 9 a.m., 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. everyday, thus hitting peak times across the entire country.

The standouts: In terms of programming plucked from Disney US, Wright singles out Mickey Mouse Clubhouse as being the rock of his schedule, repeatedly airing throughout each weekday. ‘Mickey Mouse is quite an icon, and this show has been great for re-introducing these classic characters to a new audience,’ says Wright. The second season of the musical series launches this fall and he expects it to remain a major drawing card for the net.

From the vault of homegrown programming, Wright says that Decode Entertainment’s Franny’s Feet has performed well and will continue to air on the net into 2009.

In terms of new series, live-action musical Imagination Movers from Disney Channel US is shimmying its way onto the net this fall. Its half-hour eps revolve around a New Orleans-style musical family. ‘It’s quite funny,’ says Wright. ‘It’s a fun mix of both problem-solving and music.’ The series will launch on weekends, and then, as more eps are made, the plan is to migrate it to strip daily. ‘In a perfect world, we would strip it in the same time slot seven days a week right away, but…we don’t want to run the same few episodes over and over again,’ he notes.

Looking further into the future, Wright is awaiting Special Agent Oso, a 2-D/CGI animated series from Disney that features a bumbling teddy bear cum secret agent who tries to solve problems with the help of viewers. The show is currently in production and should start delivering next year.

Delivering eyeballs: Rather than promoting individual shows, Astral is pushing the network as a whole to further drive awareness amongst Canuck kids and parents. Expect the net to roll out a massive one-year anniversary campaign in November across the Great White North.

Treehouse guards its top spot by growing subscriber base and playing up VOD service

Lay of the land: Launched in November 1997, Treehouse was the first and only 24/7 preschool net in Canada up until nine months ago with the entrée of Playhouse Disney into the territory. The net thus far has maintained its top-ranking status and is currently available in 7.9 million of Canada’s 10.6 million TV households. Revenues on the commercial-free net are derived primarily from subscription fees, although there are a few billboard ads that bring in a small percentage of annual revenues. Treehouse features Canadian content and international fare, with a heavy emphasis on series with a light educational bent, a musical component and unique visuals.

The goal: Brenda Nietupski, director of programming for Treehouse and Discovery Kids Canada at Corus Entertainment, says the main goal for the channel in the next year is to grow its subscription base and fill the sked with series that will deliver those all-important co-viewing opportunities.

The strategy: It’s pretty simple right now – tweak the offering enough to introduce some new programs without disrupting a schedule to which, Nietupski believes, Canadian preschoolers are already well accustomed. ‘Kids like routine,’ she says. ‘It’s something that they can trust, if I make some changes between September and February, we hear about it. We hear about the disruption to family life.’

Because Treehouse only has one national feed for a country that spans five different time zones, Nietupski says it’s challenging to schedule blocks. Her strategy for attacking this limitation is to concern herself more with the daily ‘flow’ of the programming. ‘Tone is key for us,’ she says, explaining that rather than worrying about the time of day a series might run, she is concerned with how series relate to each other in terms of tone. For instance, similarly themed series such as Nooky & Friends and In the Night Garden run back to back, and live-actioners The Wiggles, Sesame Street and Yo Gabba Gabba! run in sequence.

The standouts: Nietupski doesn’t hesitate when asked to name a standout series for the net, citing Nelvana/Nick co-pro The Backyardigans as a perfect fit for the Treehouse’s MO of providing mildly educational musical content. ‘I think it has characters that kids can really relate to,’ she says. ‘Also, parents like the music as much as kids do.’ The half-hour CGI series is stripped every weekday at 6:30 p.m. and it’s a slot that Nietupski feels is perfect for the series. ‘We had it on in the morning when it launched in 2004, but it has really taken off in the evening slot.’

As for new shows Nituepski’s excited about, she points out Big & Small, a puppet series produced by Three Days, Kindle Entertainment, CBeebies and Treehouse that’s launching in February 2009. And to give the new show maximum exposure, she’s stripping its 11-minute eps throughout the morning and evening during weekdays.

Additionally this fall, the net is bowing Toot & Puddle, a co-pro between National Geographic Kids Entertainment and Mercury Filmworks. The 26 x half-hour toon acts like a travel show for the youngest demo, featuring the adventures of two little pigs with a penchant for globetrotting. The series will have a weekend slot, airing between Little Bear and The Backyardigans.

Delivering eyeballs: In terms of marketing, Treehouse is going to be stepping up its VOD service by offering ‘direct to home’ releases, making content available first on VOD before any other platform. As well, the net will continue to feed its Treehouse TV on iTunes offering, which launched last April, to give parents the opportunity to download content in a different way. The net is also extending its cross-promotional efforts with other Corus-owned networks including older-skewing YTV.

About The Author
Gary Rusak is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He has covered the kids entertainment industry for the last decade with a special interest in licensing, retail and consumer products. You can reach him at


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